David and I had different goals going into our trip to Vietnam. I was excited to trek in Sapa, to lay on a beach in Nha Trang (it rained) and to drift through Halong Bay on a junk boat. David, nonfiction and history buff that he is, was pumped to learn more about the Vietnam War and to visit sites like the War Remnants Museum (HCMC), the Cu Chi Tunnels (HCMC), the Hanoi Hilton (Hanoi) and the Vietnam Military History Museum (Hanoi). War Tourism 101.
As Vietnam was “David’s” country, I went along for the ride, thinking that if nothing else, I’d learn a thing or two. Learn I did. Unsettled, I was.
I’ve already described my misgivings about the Hanoi Hilton, but I honestly thought it was a one-off. Hoped, rather. The Vietnam Military History in Hanoi did little for me. The museum itself had very little English translation, so I was guessing at what was what. There was a multi-media presentation that looked well-developed, if you understand the local language, so I basically walked through the museum looking at various weapons from various time periods going ‘um hum’ and making my way to the nearest standing fan to cool off while David took pictures.
Outside was a different matter. Most of the aircraft and tanks on display were American. These signs did have English translation and indicated the pride that Vietnam had in capturing equipment. But there was one display that was sculpture-like – a plane placed nose-down, with melted metal parts surrounding it. It was an eye-catching display, but all I could think about was that the pilot of this aircraft died horrifically. I can only hope that he died on impact and did not burn to death.
As we moved South through the country, there was an odd mix of anti-American sentiment regarding the war, but a conflicting love of American things. You will see American brands all over the place, and the fast-food chains like KFC are packed. Granted, it’s probably just a small part of the population that visits these chains, given the price point, but there remains a local market nonetheless.
Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), also called Saigon, was where I struggled the most. The War Remnants Museum was much better equipped to tell the story to English-speaking tourists. The first floor displays hundreds of photos from around the world of people opposing American involvement in the Vietnam War. I get it, nobody wanted Americans there, but what the Museum didn’t make clear was how the war even started in the first place – a fact that I’m still fuzzy on. From what I understand, it was first a civil war between North and South, communist vs. non-communist. America got involved in the hopes of stopping the spread of communism. I won’t even go into the question about whether or not America should have been involved in the first place – I don’t have enough information to have a well-informed opinion.
What I can say is that the use of Agent Orange, a herbicide (toxic chemicals) used to wipe out crops, was a horrific tactic of war. The immediate and long-lasting impacts have been significant and gruesome. It has contaminated water supplies, caused a massive amount of birth defects, not to mention the immediate deaths of the time. The photos are gut wrenching and it doesn’t matter what country you hail from, you know in your core it was wrong. I was moved by a letter written by a 23 year old woman to President Obama in response to his open letter to his daughters, published in Parade Magazine. Now, I’m not getting political and saying what the US should have / should do for victims of Agent Orange, but the letter highlighted to me how victims feel left behind to this day.
Cu Chi Tunnels was, bar none, the worst experience I had in our war tourism. This intricate, claustraphobic network of tunnels were created by guerrilla soldiers from the Viet Cong. The tunnels acted as shelters, transportation routes, communication outlets, etc. There was even an underground hospital and locals from the area could hide out there also. It wasn’t the tunnels so much that bothered me, rather the way the guides described the booby traps for American soldiers.
As he pointed to a spiked ball, a vicious looking weapon hanging from a rope that would hit a soldier in the face he said, “Soldier no see his honey when he go home. He blind.”
And then he laughed.
At that point I’m pretty sure my face spoke for itself. I’m not American, I’m Canadian, but it doesn’t matter what nationality I am, I would never have found that funny. It wasn’t the only one either. He’d joke about Americans left hanging by their armpits from sharp steel spikes, or spiked doors that would hit a soldier in the abdomen and groin. “He no have kids!” the guide laughed again.
I could write it off and say that it was the one guide, the one awful guide that has no respect for who could be on his tours, but I don’t think that’s the case. I watched as various other groups passed through, guides making similar jokes, then lead their tourist group to the shooting range – war tourism at its finest.
What I was thinking about for days after was what it must be like for American Vietnam war veterans who come back to Vietnam. If I’d been a vet on that tour, had someone laugh about the torture that was imposed in war, I can’t imagine my reaction. I did not laugh at the impact of Agent Orange, so I don’t expect laughter at the pain caused to American soldiers. There also seems to be little recognition of the fact that so many Americans opposed the war. Many were only in combat to avoid going to prison by defecting.
I know that it’s important to see the museums, to see the Vietnamese view point of the Vietnam War, or the American War as they refer to it, but I was left with less understanding and more frustration at the way in which it was presented. History, though, is written by the victors.
But there are no victors in wars. Only survivors.